When Peter Rowan sings, "Amen, holy, hallelujah," telling the tale of burying his father as snow fell down on Easter morning, there's no questioning the honesty in his voice. Just as if he sang the traditional "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" about losing his mother, we'd believe that he was feeling those words in his soul.
But Peter Rowan actually wrote "Father, Mother," on his new album, Legacy, about his dad's passing, and it's all true. In fact, the album's 13 tracks include 10 new songs by Rowan, all of which sound as if they could be traditional tunes passed on by bluegrass bands for half a century.
There's no doubt some will be. Rowan wrote a few of bluegrass music's most widely known and covered songs, including "Midnight Moonlight" and "Panama Red." He began his career as a guitarist and lead singer in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, a position that alone gave him permanent status among the genre's elite. From there, however, he buddied up with David "Dawg" Grisman in the cross-over acoustic outfit Earth Opera before helping to found Old and in the Way with Jerry Garcia.
Rowan dabbled in rock and reggae in the years since, but always with his distinctive bluegrass twist. With his Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band debut on Legacy, however, he's returned to pure tradition. Longtime collaborators Keith Little (banjo), Paul Knight (bass), and Jody Stecher (mandolin) round out his quartet on the album, along with guest appearances by such bluegrass greats as Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Gillian Welch, Tim O'Brien, and Dave Rawlings.
"Bluegrass has become kind of generalized, so I'm happy to have a band that believes in my writing and wants to make real bluegrass music, the kind of bluegrass I see as being real," says Rowan. "It requires so much effort to play it. I'm one of the few people digging back into these origins. You could say that my pilgrimage of song has been about finding what to nourish — the roots of bluegrass — for me to come back to it in a more full-time way."
Although his love of Jamaican music remains strong, Rowan saw the similarities in the two styles and their lasting vitality and decided it was time to revisit the pure genre that spawned him.
"I've got a (Martin) D-18 guitar, and I know how to play it. What chance do I really have wandering a field in Mongolia and doing a record, and then one in Japan? It's nice, but it's time to come back home to the roots and let them grow," he reflects. "Before, I might have thought of a different style for each song. But the emotional content of bluegrass has a lot to do with why it's a perfect medium for songs. Bluegrass goes deep in a unique way. Country doesn't go there anymore, and gospel is pretty much straightforward. Bluegrass was the music that went between all forms, between gospel and the blues, and the hill hollers and the roots, and that's kind of getting lost."
Much of Legacy is indeed gospel, including songs like "The Night Prayer" and "God's Own Child," but while Rowan's faith appears strong in his lyrics, his spiritual worldview is wider. Opening track "Jailer, Jailer" takes an ironic nudge at holier-than-though folks who believe "my god is better than your god." on the closing track "Across the Rolling Hills (Padmasambhava)," the album concludes on a repeated Eastern mantra.
"The spirit of enlightenment is upon us. It's our time. It's our world right now. There's a new language happening, and it seemed right that all of that should be on this record," says Rowan. "Bluegrass always included the church-based gospel, but it also always talked about a certain level of perceived reality in the world that made you go to your knees, at night, in a clearing, or in the forest. It's about individual spiritual awakening."
Nearing 70 years old, perhaps that's why Rowan keeps touring, playing major festivals and clubs like the Pour House alike. Or why he has finally recorded an album of brand new, traditional style songs with a band he's played with for years.
"We're doing the work of 20 year olds," laughs Rowan. "You've got to let a good wine mellow, and we've been curing for a while."